The Dumping of Rep. Chris Smith A hard fall from grace

Posted: January 12, 2005

Chris Smith is one of those rare politicians who stands up for his beliefs even when party leaders are telling him to pipe down. That's why the conservative New Jersey Republican is no longer chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and the rest of the House Republican leadership last week dumped Smith from his powerful chairman's post. As an added insult, they kicked him off the veterans' committee entirely. Under the party's rules, Smith ought to have been able to serve two more years as chairman.

If chairmen were rewarded for good work, he would still have the job. But Smith's transgression was his outspoken advocacy of more funding for veterans. Imagine that - a tireless champion of veterans, serving as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee. The House GOP leaders couldn't tolerate such an effective crusader in their midst, not with an austere budget season looming.

Soon after becoming chairman of the committee in 2001, Smith pushed through an extra $1 billion for veterans, amended the GI bill to nearly double educational benefits for veterans, and added $550 million for repairs to VA hospitals and aid for disabled vets.

That was only the beginning. In 2004, Smith led a group of House Republicans that threatened to defeat the Bush budget unless lawmakers added $1.8 billion more for veterans. They got it.

Frustrated by the arbitrary nature of these annual budget battles, Smith sought to shift veterans funding from the discretionary budget to an entitlement system. Under his proposal, Congress would guarantee automatically enough money each year to meet the health-care needs of veterans. This would have been expensive - about $300 billion over 10 years. And it was probably the final black mark against Chairman Smith. Hastert, who opposes the change, had warned Smith that he might lose his chairmanship if he persisted with the idea. Worse, Smith was working with (gasp) Democrats who embraced his views.

Smith's heart is in the right place on this issue. While funding for veterans has increased, the need for veterans services has increased even more. The Veterans Administration's enrolled population has grown 134 percent since 1996, while appropriations have risen 44 percent.

A VA official told Congress last year that the agency requires 14 percent annual funding increases just to keep services at the same level; instead it receives increases of about 5 percent annually.

The result is longer waiting lists at VA hospitals, and greater demands on the system from an aging veterans population.

It's common wisdom in Washington that the GOP is the party of the armed services and of national security. Republican leaders, then, should understand better than anyone our duty to care for veterans, who sacrificed so much for their country.

But, even as this nation creates a large, new class of veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan, one of veterans' most important advocates in Congress has been demoted.

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